Politics & Government

All Kentucky schools must increase dropout age to 18 by 2017

Signs decorated the field at the George Rogers Clark High School graduation in Winchester on Tuesday, May 21, 2013. Photo by Briana Scroggins
Signs decorated the field at the George Rogers Clark High School graduation in Winchester on Tuesday, May 21, 2013. Photo by Briana Scroggins Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — Kentucky will abandon a generations-old policy that allows minors as young as 16 to drop out of school, a move being heralded by Gov. Steve Beshear as an important step for a state that has strived to improve its economy and educational standing.

At last count, some 5,000 Kentucky teens per year quit school early in Kentucky.

"We know that keeping our students in school will not only offer them a better future, but will ensure that Kentucky has a better-trained, better-prepared workforce that will benefit the state for decades to come," Beshear said in a statement Wednesday.

So many Kentucky school districts have opted to increase the dropout age from 16 to 18 in the past two weeks that all others will be forced to follow. That's because the General Assembly passed a law earlier this year that increases the dropout age statewide after 55 percent of the state's 173 school districts signed on.

Beshear's office and education officials quickened the change by beginning what they dubbed the "Blitz to 96" — the number of districts needed to trigger the change statewide. As part of the push, the state offered $10,000 incentives to the first 96 districts that adopted the policy.

Fayette County Public Schools was not among the 96 school districts which adopted the change, but in April its board passed a resolution affirming its commitment to do so. In June, the board gave first reading to a policy that would raise the dropout age. The policy is expected to get a final vote in July.

Other Central Kentucky school districts that voted to raise the dropout age include Bourbon, Franklin, Garrard and Scott County school systems, and Berea and Paris independent school districts, according to a list provided by the governor's office.

Many school boards held specially-called meetings over the last two weeks so they could get the $10,000 planning grants offered by the state.

Districts that voted to voluntarily raise their dropout age can do so beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, after they demonstrate to the state that they have a successful alternative education program in place.

The policy won't take effect statewide until 2017, allowing school districts time to adjust to the change.

For Beshear and his wife, Jane, a former teacher, increasing the dropout age has been a top priority since taking office in 2007. It took years to get lawmakers to accept the change, and it happened only through a compromise reached in this year's legislative session.

"Implementing this important policy shows that Kentucky puts a high value on education by putting faith in our students," Beshear said Wednesday.

Senate Republicans had balked at the idea because of concerns that classrooms would be disrupted by unruly students who don't want to be in school, forcing school districts to spend money on alternative education programs.

Proponents insisted that forcing minors to remain in school has societal and financial benefits because dropouts are more likely to go to prison or rely on welfare programs. They cited studies that showed dropouts who get jobs are likely to make less over their lifetimes — more than $300,000 less — than high school graduates.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader